“Ok, explain it to me one more time,” Henry said.
Petalwynd sighed. “There are certain techniques that I’ve learned as a monk which allow me to channel cosmic energy to do certain things.”
“Like healing people?” Henry asked.
“Yes, though I’m not sure how effective it’s always going to be, so you should still be careful.” Petalwynd held up a finger as she said this, using her teaching voice.
Henry ignored that. “Okay, I get that. But, if you know how to do stuff like that, why haven’t you before?”
Petalwynd paused, frowning a bit. “Well, I wasn’t entirely certain it would work. There’s a small chance that in channeling the cosmic energy into your body, I could have made you explode.”
Henry stopped walking, staring at her in horror. “Did you say explode?”
“Just a little, though,” she told him with a smile. “I wouldn’t have been hurt by it, so don’t worry.”
“You could have made me explode, and I shouldn’t worry about that?” he yelled.
Petalwynd gave him a curious look. “You were already moments from death, Henry. I don’t think you would have noticed.”
“That’s not the point!” he cried. “For crying out loud, Petalwynd, don’t tell me I might blow up when you heal me!”
She laughed at that. “I can only use it if you are about to die, so as long as you avoid that, we should be fine.”
“That’s kind of a crappy healing ability,” Henry told her.
The Halfling gave him an odd stare. “Would you rather be dead?”
“Ah, yeah, no,” he admitted.
“Okay then,” she sniffed. “I’d say my crappy healing abilities are pretty useful then.”
Henry sighed. “Fine, I’m sorry. It’s just, I’m starting to realize that I don’t really know that much about you. I had no idea you could do something like that.”
“My tradition is thousands of years old,” she replied. “We know many secrets about channeling the energy of the cosmos. I admit, I don’t have a firm grasp on them all, but I do know a few tricks.”
“Obviously,” Henry smiled. “And, thanks again, for saving my life.”
The smile she gave him was bright. “Of course! I can’t very well let my best friend die, now can I?”
Henry laughed at that. Petalwynd did as well, before suddenly turning grim, looking back the way they had come. Henry turned that way as well, knowing her keen eyes could see things his never would.
“They still behind us?” he asked softly.
She nodded. “Yes, and I don’t think they are going to give up.”
“Well, we best try and put some distance on them then,” he sighed.
“I don’t think we’re going to outrun them, Henry,” she said softly. “But I don’t want to fight unless we have no choice.”
“I get the feeling these Driskian raiders aren’t going to give us one,” Henry told her.
“Then they shall be sorry for it,” Petalwynd answered darkly. “I will not show them mercy.”
Henry and Petalwynd turned back, and headed on. Behind them, the friends of the slavers they had beaten still pursued, as they had for a month now. In time, they would catch up, and when they did, they would leave only two choices. Fight, or die.
Trader’s Hallow was not a town. It was a collection of crudely constructed buildings made to resemble something that might look like a town if a person squinted hard enough. That hadn’t stopped it from earning a reputation, and a dark one at that.
Even Henry had heard tale of Trader’s Hallow. Many were the stories of those who had set out to seek fame and fortune, only to die by a brigands blade in the lawless outpost. Worse still were the tales of the King’s Guard who had been found dead, throats slit and possessions stolen.
There was no nice way of saying that the place was a den of iniquity. Luddin may have been bad, but this was the ass end of the Kingdom, a dank hole which was home to only the most vile of people.
As they drew near, Henry told Petalwynd what he knew of the outpost, and it’s history. Despite her usual optimism about everything, even she grew concerned about having to stop for long. With the Driskians still pursuing them, both knew they needed to resupply and be on their way quickly.
What Henry didn’t tell her was that he was certain those that trailed them likely had allies in the outpost. The odds of them getting in and out were slim, and while he had no desire to fight, he felt certain the Driskians wouldn’t leave him a choice.
He didn’t regret saving the children their slaver friends had tried to take, only that it had put them in the cross hairs of the raiders now chasing them. It was to be expected, he knew. Men such as them did not forgive slights, much less being denied what they wanted. They were the worst kind of people there were in the world, the kind who took what they wanted, no matter who it hurt.
Part of him accepted that his desire to foil the Driskians was motivated by Miranda’s treatment of him. His wife, or rather ex wife now, had been the same sort of person. She seized whatever she wanted, and cared little for how it destroyed others lives. He had never thought highly of such people, but after meeting Petalwynd, had grown to hate them.
He looked down at her as they drew near the outpost. Since the first day them had met, she had been nothing but kind to him. In fact, he felt that her belief in him was why he had found the courage to stand up to cruel people in the first place.
Petalwynd was the kind of person Henry now understood that he wanted to be. She believed, honestly and truly, that doing the right thing was its own reward. Her optimism and perpetual smile might be naive at times, but in her, Henry had found a direction for his life. A way to live that he wasn’t ashamed of.
He knew he could never be as true to the idea of goodness as she was. He was far to jaded and resentful to ever really live that way. But he wanted to believe others could be, and that he could help them do it. That he could make the world a better place, just by being in it, like Petalwynd did.
That was something worth living for, wasn’t it? Something worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. A better world, just because it could be.
Henry looked back once more over his shoulder. If the world could be a worse place for men such as them, then it could be a better one for men such as he. He believed that, and decided as they stepped into Trader’s Hallow, that it would be enough for him, now and always.
It had to be enough.
“That’s an interesting smell,” Petalwynd told Henry.
“I’m not sure I’d classify it as interesting,” Henry replied.
Petalwynd cocked her head to the side, thinking about that. “Perhaps not, though it is certainly new. What is it?”
Henry stared at her. “You don’t want to know.”
“Of course I do,” she smiled. “That’s why I asked.”
“Trust me on this one, Petalwynd, you’re happier not knowing.” Henry tugged the donkey onward, wanting to be done and gone from the so called town quickly.
“Hmm,” Petalwynd murmured behind him, chin resting in her hand. “This is not like you at all, Henry. You’ve always been open to answering my questions in the past. What is so different about now?”
With a sigh, Henry turned back to her, leaned down, and whispered the answer in her ear. Petalwynd’s eyes grew wide, then disgusted as she absorbed the answer. Henry straightened and waited for it to sink in.
“This is not a place I’d like to remain,” she said at last.
“Welcome to the club,” he chuckled. “Let’s get what we came for, and get moving.”
“Not so fast,” a new voice called.
“Oh, great,” Henry groaned as he turned to face three soldiers approaching him, all of them wearing the colors of the King’s Guard.
Of course, the possibility that they were brigands in stolen armor crossed his mind. His hand fell to his sword as they drew near, though he honestly hoped they were who they appeared to be. Beside him, Petalwynd looked up at them curiously, but otherwise, made no move to ready herself.
Sometimes, Henry wished she was just a little more suspicious of people.
“What brings you to Trader’s Hallow?” the lead Guard asked, eyeing them both with open distrust.
“We are travels, passing through, and nothing more,” Petalwynd replied before Henry could. “Are you murderers in stolen clothing?”
The Guard blanched. “Of course not! How dare you accuse me of such a thing?”
“Actually,” Henry cut in, stepping between the monk and the soldier. “It’s been rumored that such things happen. So, it isn’t as if the question is that out of line.”
“He’s right, Grant,” one of the soldiers chuckled.
“Smart guy, this one,” the other said, eyeing Henry curiously.
“Shut up,” Grant snapped. “We are with the King’s Guard, at that’s all you need to know!”
“Then you won’t mind showing us some proof,” Petalwynd smiled.
Grant looked a bit put out by that. The two behind him began snickering as the soldier’s face turned red. Henry knew full well why, too.
“Of course, any proof you produce could have been stolen, meaning there is no proof,” he said with a smile. “So, in the end, you’re asking us to take you at your word.”
“Now see here,” Grant bellowed.
The first of the soldiers who had spoken rested a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down. We all knew this was going to happen. Be thankful that these two are smart enough not to take us at face value.”
“But, sir,” Grant stammered.
“That’s enough,” the soldier said, nodding his head away from Henry and Petalwynd.
“I see,” Henry said slowly. “You let your subordinate lead so we wouldn’t guess that you were in charge. Clever.”
“Why would he do that?” Petalwynd asked.
“Because, I couldn’t be certain that you were not brigands yourselves,” the soldier said with a smile. “Though, it would be the first time I’ve ever seen a monk become a petty thief and killer.”
Petalwynd’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“There’s a small monastery a few weeks out from here,” the soldier told her, pointing off in the same direction Henry and Petalwynd had already been traveling. “There aren’t many monks there, maybe three or four, but they give shelter to the King’s Guard whenever we pass through. You stand just like they do.”
“A monastery?” Petalwynd asked in awe. “Is there a chance you could tell us how to reach it?”
“I’d be happy to,” the soldier answered. “But in return, I’d like to ask you two a few questions of my own.”
“Very well,” Henry answered. “Though, I’d prefer to do it someplace well lit, if you don’t mind.”
The solider looked towards the setting sun. “That’s a good idea, actually. I think I’d prefer that myself. There’s a tavern not far from here where the rest of our garrison is resting. That ought to be safe enough.”
“Or a well laid trap,” Henry countered.
The soldier laughed at that. “You certainly are a cautious one. I think I like you. Name’s Allen Foster, from Tiesden, on the far side of Thertin Hills. Nice to meet you.”
“Henry Blake, from Rivershire,” he answered, shaking the soldier’s hand. “And this is my companion, Petalwynd.”
“My, what an unusual name,” Allen said as Petalwynd bowed.
“Is it?” she asked curiously. “I’ve never thought so.”
“Come, let’s get inside, and swap some tales, shall we?” Allen asked.
Henry nodded, still eyeing the soldiers warily. It was easy to say they were men of honor, but in reality, it was far easier to find a knife in one’s own back in a place such as this.
It didn’t take long for Henry to realize that Allen was on the level. Or rather, Lieutenant Foster with the 122nd Royal Division, dispatched from Tiesden to take control of Trader’s Hallow. As it turned out, they had arrived a few weeks before, and since had been trying to secure the outpost as a safe haven for travelers.
The tavern had been turned into their head quarters, which Henry learned when they stepped inside and he found himself surrounded by soldiers. Petalwynd had gone wide eyed as she took in the military force, never having seen so many at once.
At Allen’s insistence, they had joined him for a meal, and traded tales of how they had come to Trader’s Hallow in the first place. His was simple enough, summed by with two words, really. Following orders. Still, it was far from such a simple matter, making any place in the Thertin Hills truly safe.
It was when Henry had shared the story of how he and Petalwynd had come to the outpost that Allen’s face had turned more serious. The mention of Driskian raiders in the Hills was no small matter to the Lieutenant, and in reality, border lined on a declaration of war from Drisk.
“The Driskians know that they aren’t allowed to operate in Rannis,” Allen told them. “But when they can, they slip in and do as they please in the Hills. That you’ve run across them is not good news for us.”
“No kidding,” Grant added. “If we get into an open conflict with them, it could put Rannis and Drisk at war.”
“Doubtful,” Henry mused. “If the Driskians are operating secretly, their leaders aren’t likely to want to acknowledge them at all, especially if it comes with the threat of war.”
“I thought Jarl told us these Driskians seek war whenever possible,” Petalwynd said.
“They do, yes,” Allen replied. “But a war with Rannis isn’t something even they want. In all of the western nations, Rannis is the largest, and has the most capable military. Starting a war with us would quickly find them in a corner, especially since we have allies on all sides of Drisk.”
“So, it’s a war they couldn’t win,” Henry told her. “Which is why I figure they would disavow any of their mercenaries found here.”
“That doesn’t make the problem go away,” Allen told him. “They may be hoping to weaken Rannis’ stance with our allies by making it look like we started the fight. Worse than that, though, would be if they managed to cause enough discord out here to force the King to send a full military force to deal with them.”
Henry pondered that for a moment. “Fielding an army in the Hills would put it close enough to Drisk that they could claim Rannis was making threats against their sovereignty. I see what you mean.”
Petalwynd listened to them talk, and slowly began to get a better picture of the mess she and Henry had gotten themselves in. She thought of the children they had saved as well, and nodded her head.
“So, if I’m understanding this correctly, you and the soldiers with you have to deal with these Driskians carefully, or things could get out of hand quickly, right?” she asked.
Allen nodded. “In a nutshell, yeah, that’s the situation. Of course, you two make it a new problem. Now that you have Drisk mercenaries on your tail, I can’t stay uninvolved, or else I’ll be ignoring my standing orders to defend citizens of Rannis.”
Grant chuckled a bit at that. “Not that we’d pass up a chance to kick them in the tail anyway, especially now that we know they’ve been hauling children from Rannis off to be slaves in Drisk. That alone is enough to make me want to cut these guys down and lose their bodies somewhere.”
“Um,” Petalwynd said softly. “That’s..”
“Oh, sorry,” Grant said suddenly. “I forgot myself.”
“It’s okay,” Allen told him. “I feel the same way, but we have to remember who we are, and who we serve. The King would never forgive us for something like that.”
“Do you know him?” Petalwynd asked.
Allen looked at her in surprise. “King Callantin? Of course I know him. Every soldier in the King’s Guard, especially the Royal branch, has been greeted personally by the King. He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’ve long heard he was very much a man of the people,” Henry said. “Though, living all the way out in Rivershire, I guess I never really believed it much.”
“I’ve never even really heard of him,” Petalwynd added with a small grin. “Of course, I don’t guess he’s ever heard of our monastery either, so that’s pretty fair.”
Allen gave her a strange smile. “Don’t be so sure, my friend. King Callantin is pretty aware of every corner of his realm. Odds are, if your monastery has a name, he’s heard of it.”
Petalwynd flushed a bit at that. “I really doubt that. It’s a pretty small place.”
Allen sighed and gave Henry a wink. “Let’s see, judging by those robes you’re wearing, and the fact you’re a Halfling, not to mention Henry here saying you managed to use the Rising Lotus Flower healing technique, I’m going to say you’re from the Jade Eye Monastery in the Kienase Mountains west of here.”
Petalwynd stared at him in open faced shock. “Wow.”
“I didn’t know your monastery had a name,” Henry said with a laugh.
“I didn’t know anyone knew about us at all,” Petalwynd said, staring at Allen still.
The Lieutenant gave her a warm smile. “No corner of the realm, like I said. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised to see you this far east. I’d always heard the Jade Eye didn’t travel much.”
“Oh, no, we don’t,” Petalwynd admitted. “But my master felt I needed to see the world. He said I could not find my destiny at the monastery, only out in the world.”
“Well,” Allan sighed. “I’m sorry it lead you to a clash with mercenaries from Drisk. Not to worry tough, from here on out, you won’t need to worry about them. Me and my men will make sure they don’t follow you any further.”
Henry nodded at that. “You have our thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Allan laughed. “It’s in my job description.”
As the night grew long, Henry found that he honestly liked Allan Foster, and slept easy that night knowing the Lieutenant would deal the mercenaries.
The next day, Allan proved himself yet again by arranging for Henry and Petalwynd to have everything they needed to continue their journey. Foodstuffs, water, and even a tent that they could put up to provide them shelter on rainy nights were all given freely.
Henry tried to refuse, but the Lieutenant wouldn’t hear it. His first priority was the well being of the citizens who lived in the Kingdom he served, and as such, it was his duty to see to their needs. In the end, Henry accepted, and thanked him for his kindness.
A map to the location of the monastery he had mentioned earlier was given as well. Allan repeated to Petalwynd what he said the night before, that it was small, but he believed they could find shelter there, and the monks would no doubt make sure their supplies were sufficient to complete their journey through the Hills.
Last, but not least, the officer presented them with three horses to replace the stubborn donkey they had traveled with for so long. While Henry smiled, Petalwynd stared up at the animal in a bit of awe and fear.
“This should make the journey a lot easier,” Henry told her.
“How do you get up there?” she asked him.
Allan started laughing as soon as he realized his mistake. “Sorry about that. I guess it is a bit large for you, isn’t it?”
“Maybe just a little,” Petalwynd chuckled.
“I’m sure we’ve got some ponies around here somewhere,” Allan told her with a smile. “We’ll get you squared away as soon as we can find one.”
“That’s most kind, but it doesn’t really help,” she said, still looking up at the animal. “I’ve no idea how to ride one.”
“Wait, what?” Henry cried. “You’ve never ridden a horse before?”
“Never really had a reason to,” Petalwynd told him. “Let this be today’s lesson for you, Henry. Do not force another to do what you are perfectly capable of doing yourself.”
“Lesson?” Allan asked curiously, looking to Henry.
Henry, in turn, fumed at the monk. “It isn’t forcing another to do anything. That’s what they’re here for. Besides, we’ll make better time riding than walking.”
“It isn’t about how quickly we reach the destination, but about the lessons learned on the journey,” the Halfling told him in her teaching voice. “Oh, Henry, you got two lessons today! Congratulations!”
“She’ll ride with me,” Henry told Allan, who just nodded sagely, as if that had been his plan all along.
“Rider coming!” someone shouted. “It’s Grant!”
Allan became serious very quickly. “Henry, you and Petalwynd head back inside. Be quick about it as well.”
“Why,” the monk asked. “What’s going on?”
“I sent Grant and some men out to get a look at your Driskian tail late last night,” the officer said, turning to watch as the lone rider crested the hill and headed for the outpost.
“And only Grant is returning,” Henry finished.
“Oh no,” Petalwynd murmured. “He’s hurt. Badly.”
Allan looked at her in surprise, then nodded. Barking orders for men to form up archery lines backed by pike men, he called for a healer to be ready as well. Around the small outpost, soldiers began to hurry, doing as their commander ordered without hesitation.
Soon enough, Henry saw that Petalwynd’s eyes hadn’t failed her. As Grant rode into the outpost, his injuries were obvious, and severe. Allan was the first to him, seizing the reigns of the horse as Grant slid off his mount, caught in the arms of his comrades.
“What happened?” Allan asked as the healers laid the injured soldier on the ground.
Grant coughed a bit before saying, “They ambushed us, sir. Two dozen or so. Driskian raiders. But it wasn’t them. It was their beast.”
“Beast?” Allan inquired.
“A massive monster,” Grant gasped out. “So fast, sir. It was too fast. We couldn’t beat it.”
“Take him to the tavern,” Allan told the healers. “Get him back on his feet as soon as you can.”
They nodded and carried the injured man away, leaving the officer to ponder what his comrade had said. Behind him, Henry and Petalwynd looked at each other, and in her eyes, Henry knew what they were going to do.
To Be Continued Next Month In:
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani